Montgomery, Ala., Mar 25, 2015 / 02:36 pm (CNA/EWTN News) – Catholic leaders marked the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. with praise for those who advanced racial progress, calling on others to “march on” toward unity of hearts and minds.
“What we beheld in the Selma to Montgomery March shed needed light on the toll of racism, and, for many, put a human face on those impacted by its evils,” U.S. bishops’ conference president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said March 24. “The perseverance, sacrifice and peaceful witness against violence we recall today moved a nation to earnestly seek to heal divisions within the human family.”
The voting rights march concluded on March 25, 1965. On that day, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol asking how long racial injustice and racial prejudice would continue.
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the civil rights leader said.
King had chosen Selma as the beginning of the voting rights campaign due to the vast underrepresentation of African-Americans among registered voters, even though the town was majority black. Decades-old legal obstacles set up by white legislators severely restricted blacks’ ability to register to vote. The march also came soon after the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black Baptist deacon beaten and shot by Alabama state troopers during a demonstration against the arrest of civil rights workers.
The 54-mile march initially began in Selma with 600 people on March 7. However, their effort was blocked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by local and state law enforcement who attacked them with clubs and tear gas, causing some severe injuries among the non-violent marchers.
Archbishop Kurtz reflected on the anniversary in Montgomery at a service at St. Jude parish on Tuesday.
“We must never forget the images associated with this historic march,” said the Archbishop of Louisville. “They are pictures of men and women standing as still as stone against a coming rush of violent resistance during the first attempt to march. They are images of solidarity, of complete strangers coming together all along the way for a noble purpose, at times literally binding up one another’s wounds.”
After the violent attack on the first march, King led a symbolic march to the bridge on March 9, 1965, the same day President Lyndon Johnson called for the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act. Later that day, a white Unitarian Universalist minister involved in the march was attacked and beaten severely by a group of white men in Selma. He died two days later.
The marchers secured a legal ruling in their favor and President Johnson nationalized the Alabama National Guard to provide security. The march resumed on March 21 with about 3,200 marchers. Their numbers grew to 25,000 by the time it ended March 25.
Archbishop Kurtz said the anniversary observance honored the sacrifice of “many brave and unnamed heroes,” most of whom were of “deep faith,” and included a number of Catholics. These people “worked for years to ensure equal access to the benefits of democracy, benefits that include the right to vote and fully participate in the processes that safeguard the common good.”
The day before the 1965 march concluded, marchers rested on Montgomery’s outskirts at City of St. Jude, a Catholic parish and social services center with a hospital and school which pastor Father Harold Purcell had founded to help minister to African-Americans. Marchers built a makeshift stage and held a concert whose performers included Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, according to the Alabama news site AL.com.
The City of St. Jude’s hospital, which was the first in the region to serve all races, treated Viola Lizzo, a white marcher from Detroit who was shot by Ku Klux Klan members. However, her wounds ultimately proved fatal.
Some local Alabamans reacted with hostility to the City of St. Jude’s involvement in the march. Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile told AL.com the organization suffered a “considerable” drop in donations and some medical personnel quit.
Archbishop Rodi also celebrated Mass at the City of St. Jude on March 24.
The archbishop told CNA that the anniversary of the march “reminds us how far we have come as a Church and a nation.”
“We remember that the basis of the Civil Rights movement was a spiritual one: we are all created in the image and likeness of God,” he said Tuesday. “This anniversary also serves to remind us of how far we have to go until the dignity of all God’s children, from any background and from conception throughout life, is respected.“
Archbishop Kurtz said there has been “significant progress” against racism since 1965, including “real and lasting change.”
“There is still much to be done in fully transforming hearts and minds; let us use the energy of this anniversary to finish the work of healing divisions that remain and ending the cycles of violence that grip too many of our communities,” the archbishop concluded. “With firm faith and trust in a gracious and loving God, we must march on.”